Lyric Opera Baltimore opens season with traditional, mostly effective 'Tosca'

It's deja vu all over the place in the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

To open its third season, Lyric Opera Baltimore is offering a production of Puccini's passionate "Tosca" featuring the set used in that same venue by the Baltimore Opera Company, which went bankrupt five years ago.

That set was sold off with all the company's other assets during the liquidation process, but was rented back from its new owners (Fort Worth Opera) for this occasion.

In addition to the familiarity of the solidly conventional scenery, which neatly conjures up grand edifices of Rome in 1800, and the equally traditional costumes, the cast for this "Tosca" is reminiscent of the old Baltimore Opera days — singers who can deliver the goods in generally effective fashion, but leave you wishing for a little bit more.

One big difference between the former company's last few decades and now is the engagement of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Lyric Opera Baltimore's decision to hire the BSO is one of the wisest moves it has made.

Aside from a few rocky moments of coordination with conductor Steven White, the orchestra proved to be a terrific boon during Friday night's performance — the brass, especially. It was great to hear Puccini's score pouring out of the pit so dynamically. At his best, White shaped that score with an ear for contour and color.

Onstage, Jill Gardner brought abundant conviction to the title role of the ardent, jealous woman who loves Cavaradossi, a painter on the wrong side of the authorities, but must fend off the lust of despotic, despicable Scarpia, chief of the Roman police.

Although she tended to push the melodramatic side of the character, Gardner was, in the end, a theatrically persuasive Tosca. The soprano's singing had plenty of expressive fire, but needed firmer control of pitch when the melodic line rose.

Dinyar Vania commanded attention as Cavaradossi (and won the lion's share of the applause on Friday). The tenor produced a warm, well-focused tone all evening. Some of his phrasing was generic, but he demonstrated an appreciation for nuance along the way, most notably in his Act 3 aria. Vania's confident acting was another plus.

Raymond Aceto enjoyed a great nosh on the scenery, drawing out every ounce of Scarpia's smarm. He did not summon enough vocal power to ride over the orchestra in the most emphatic moments, but he compensated by relishing every word of the text and adding many a deft subtlety to his phrasing.

Veteran bass-baritone Francois Loup brought delectable vocal color and spot-on acting to the role of the fussy Sacristan in Act 1. Boy soprano John Moses delivered the off-stage shepherd's song at the start of Act 3 with admirable finesse. The rest of the soloists, along with the chorus, did sturdy work.

Stage director James Harp took a safe, conventional approach to the action, with nice little surprises here and there — Tosca playfully rubbing Cavaradossi's face with a paint brush, for example. But the frantic closing moments of the opera, as tragedy closes in on Tosca, could use a much more imaginative, arresting touch.

'Tosca' will be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Modell/Lyric.